Pato Banton was born in a home plagued by violence.
When his family separated, Banton and his five siblings were placed in government care. It took more than two years for his mother to get all her children back under one roof. "It wasn't ideal," Banton understates. "There were times I can remember that I went to look for food in the cupboard and there wasn't any."
In those economically oppressive times, Banton found solace in music. "For a young kid in England who didn't really stay in school very often, music was really my only escape," Banton says. "It was what I knew."
Banton was introduced to music at a young age. By the time he was a teenager, Banton was one of the most popular MCs in his hometown of Birmingham, England. He went on to release more than a dozen acclaimed albums, including the Grammy-nominated Life is a Miracle in 2000.
During the same year, two of Banton's sons were shot in a drive-by in England. They lived, but the event made Banton rethink his priorities. He decided to postpone his music career and focus all his energy on improving the community in which he grew up.
This year, Banton was back in the studio after an eight-year hiatus. His latest album, Destination Paradise, continues Banton's evolution from a strictly reggae artist to a world musician. Pulling in Caribbean rhythms, rap freestyles and even the occasional love ballad, Banton's work is relentlessly positive and good-natured.
Before he began his 50-state U.S. tour with reggae-rock conglomerator Mystic Roots, Banton had a chat with the Alibi.
“To a certain extent, the music industry does glorify sex and violence.”
Your music is affirmative and uplifting, but much of reggae music has become fraught with violent themes and sexism. What do you think drives that negative trend?
I think it comes from the pressures of society and the pressures of the music industry. A lot of the artists are from Jamaica, where there is a lot of violence. It's almost cool to have a certain amount of gangster mentality, or to let people know you're not afraid to stand up for yourself. And, to a certain extent, the music industry does glorify sex and violence. For a lot of them, if they're going to succeed, they're going to have to add some of that into their lyrics.
How have you managed to steer clear of those commercially viable themes and still be successful?
I think because of my values. My values tell me no matter what the pressures of society or the music industry are, my first priority is to God. Another thing is, I've always shared my music with my mother. Whenever I wrote a song, I always wanted to show it to my mom. I could never imagine using profane language or violence, or putting down women and taking that in for my mom to listen to. [Laughs.] Or saying to my mom, Here's my new record. Don't listen to tracks one and seven. [Laughs.]
Take me through your thought process when you found out your sons had been shot.
My first response was, I need to go and get a gun, find out who did it and get some revenge. My second feeling was, No, I don't want to get revenge, but I'm very hurt by what's happened, and whoever has done this should have to pay. And my final response was, What can I do to change the environment my children are living in?
Can music be used in your efforts to bring about change?
Yes. My music is not so much about breaking through the music industry: It's about reaching the people and making people feel better. I also try to do whatever I can when I meet people on the road.
You've helped people you meet at shows?
It's not something I talk about much or brag about. But I did a show, and after the show, we did a prayer circle outside the venue. After the prayer circle, one guy went to my manager and told him that he had been contemplating suicide very seriously. After the words he heard at the show, and during the prayer circle, he says he feels revitalized to carry on with the challenges of life. Also, after another concert, a couple asked if I would perform their marriage ceremony. So I went online and got myself ordained and performed their wedding for them. [Laughs.]
What's your take on where reggae is going these days?
At the moment, reggae music is just becoming part of all music genres. I listen to all music formats, and it seems like every artist is using a piece of reggae. I don't see reggae becoming a mainstream force like hip-hop or rock or pop. But reggae music has its own niche, and people continue to use it and love it.