“Your word was everything/So everything you said you do/You did it/Couldn’t talk about it if you ain’t live it…”
That rhyme, that great, great rhyme, from Jay-Z’s “Where I’m From,” which is one of my very favorite songs ever recorded by anybody, points to something really sad.
Yesterday, in a Miami courtroom, international reggae star Buju Banton was convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distibute. He will serve at least 15 years in prison for the crime.
A government informant named Alexander Johnson recorded conversations about drug deals with Banton, and brought him to a warehouse where he was videotaped tasting cocaine for purity. During his trial, Banton said that he had never intended to deal drugs, and that he had only gotten involved with Johnson for reasons of rep. “I was trying to impress this guy,” Banton said. “I wasn't going to let him out-talk me.” He said he hoped Johnson would introduce him to people in the music industry that could help his career.
Whether or not Banton was telling the truth doesn’t matter much now (nor does the ridiculousness of laws that put someone in jail for 15 years for drugs). From a strictly pragmatic viewpoint, the episode shines a light on the music industry’s incredibly self-defeating reverence of the gangster lifestyle. The fact that musical artists need to navigate their careers in an environment where maintaining street cred is of such importance is a terrible shame.
And again—it’s not the music itself that I think should change. Tough talk and gangster poses can be very exciting on record. Just as that stuff can be very exciting in lots of different forms of art: music, books, movies. But it’s never a question of whether or not Elmore Leonard or Martin Scorcese actually engage in the crimes they depict on page or onscreen. And that shouldn’t be a question for Buju Banton or Jay-Z. People should be able to make music about any subject matter, criminal or not, without worrying that someone might pull their card. Musicians should find their success on the basis of how their music sounds—in a vacuum. A greater acceptance of fiction in today’s music would be healthier for the art form, if only because it might keep talented musicians out of jail.
Musical artists of any sort should be able to talk about it, on record, at least, without having to live it.
Image: Wes Orshoski/ Retna Ltd