Buju's old friend, the silk-voiced reggae star Wayne Wonder, remembers how "Boom Bye Bye" came about.
He and Buju blew up in Jamaica around the same time. In the early days, Wonder says, they would "campaign," or party, through the dancehalls to build up their following. They collaborated on numerous hits at Kingston's Penthouse Records and went on to tour Japan, Europe, and dozens of other places together.
"We were listening to Punanny Riddim in my two-door Civic, just picked up Buju," Wonder recalls while working at his home studio in Davie. "We were driving back down and pick up one of my little girlfriends. And she gives us dis story about two guys who got caught in a bathroom. 'Boom Bye Bye' wasn't intended for any animosity or to incite violence 'pon gays and lesbians. It was just a personal thing, you know. And a vibe come out in the car, and Buju just says, 'a boom bye bye in a batty bwoy head,' " Wonder recalls to the beat of the song, rising out of his chair.
It is widely reported that the song was inspired by the rape and murder of a young boy by a gay man in Jamaica. While the song grew popular as a way for Jamaicans who were enraged by that incident to funnel their anger, it had the opposite effect in the U.S. and Europe. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and dozens of other groups denounced the violent lyrics as hate speech. Buju's airplay abroad diminished. Labels took a step back. Even years after the song's release, sponsors would back out of festivals when they learned Buju was on the bill.
Carolyn Cooper, PhD, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of West Indies, explains that "the language, the Jamaican language, is very metaphorical. I try to make the argument that when Buju says all homosexuals must die — it sounds very literal — it's an indictment of homosexuality and not an incitement to actually kill all homosexuals."
But people like Brian Winfield, managing director for Equality Florida, contend that "Boom Bye Bye" couldn't be a clearer incitement of violence against gay people. "The lyrics talk about shooting gay people, they call on listeners to shoot gay people in the head and burn gay people with acid and fire," he says. "[Buju] has been profiting off the song for 20 years."
Buju apologized for how the song was interpreted and the angst it stirred but never really wavered in his opposition toward homosexuality. He did, however, tone down the rhetoric.
In 1995, his career jumped to the next level with the release of 'Til Shiloh, a deeply spiritual album that analyzes global inequity and the legacy of colonialism and contains a few dancehall classics for safe measure. Buju had started growing out his dreadlocks and embracing Rastafarianism.
Around this time, he met Father Abba Tekle Mariam, a priest from the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church in London. Buju invited the older man to come teach for a day at his Gargamel Studio. They strolled around, and Mariam remembers seeing dozens of people waiting outside, some looking for help, some just looking to catch a glimpse of the "Voice of Jamaica," as Buju had become known. The priest says Buju had become a one-man social service.
"A lady, her son was just murdered, came asking for money to do the funeral service. And he called some of the people that worked at his studio and had them give her money to cover the expense. Then there was a lady with her baby who couldn't eat, and he just gave her dollars," Mariam says, rattling off several other examples. "I asked him how he became the social service, how he would manage. And he just said God gives to him so he should give to the people."
Buju started leveraging his fame to improve his homeland. He helped fund a hospice in Jamaica for HIV-positive children — which had to be done covertly given the stigma of the disease in Jamaica — and when Puma approached him to be a brand ambassador for the Summer Olympics, he made the sportswear company hook up the local kids with new soccer gear and a field.
In spite of his generosity, it's hard to estimate how much wealth Buju accumulated. Like many reggae artists, he traveled frequently between Jamaica and South Florida. Here, he lived in a simple condo that was appraised at just $100,450 this year. Presumably, he had plenty of expenses for the 13 children he fathered over the course of his career.