Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley is set to perform at Red Rocks for Icelantic's Winter On the Rocks on Friday, January 30 with Major Lazer. Though the son of an influential music legend, Bob "Tuff Gong" Marley, like Sean Lennon, Damian Marley has firmly established himself as a noteworthy musician in his own right. His debut album, 1996's Mr. Marley, came out when Marley had recently turned eighteen. The follow-up, the 2001 release Halfway Tree received a 2002 Grammy for Best Reggae Album. Clearly, Damian Marley had arrived.
It was the 2005 album, Welcome to Jamrock, that catapulted Marley further into the realm of public consciousness. The record, richly composed, imaginatively socially aware and peppered with noteworthy collaborators, including Nas and Black Thought of The Roots, proved that reggae could speak hard truths while still enjoying wide popularity. On the album's vibrant title track, Marley and his brother Stephen had borrowed a riddim from Sly & Robbie, who had written it for the classic Ini Kamoze song, "World-A-Music."
"The beat itself evokes emotion; the sound of the music," says Marley about his choice. "The lyric we sampled was, 'Out in the street they call it merther.' It was very complimentary to the lyrics that I was doing. I had actually started to write 'Welcome to Jamrock' to another beat. Eventually we married it to the beat it has now. 'Out in the streets they call it merther' in the context of my lyrics blended well."
The term "Jamrock" Marley also transformed beyond its original usage in Jamaica into a word that referred to the reality of Jamaica rather than the Jamaica of tourism ads broadcast to potential visitors to the island nation.
"'Jamrock' is a slang word that Jamaicans use to refer to Jamaica," says Marley. "Another slang that they have is 'Jamdown.' It was really, in my usage, that you'd look at 'Jamrock' as the Jamaica that the Jamaicans knew as opposed to what is in the tourism industry. That came about because of the song. Prior to this time people wouldn't use the word 'Jamrock' and refer it to as Jamaica as it really is, so to speak. It was really because of the song that that came about."
With that song, Marley did shift the usage of a word and its conceptualization, and as a musician his songs have never been short on social awareness -- he has used his resources to effect change in communities in Africa and at home. But he does not feel that every musician need follow his own path.
"Music is the expression of the person making the music," says Marley. "I'm the kind of person who sits down and has conversations about what I think. So I don't think any artist is responsible or is obligated to do any kind of music. It's whatever you want to do. That's what it's all about, really. If we were doing the same kind of music it would be boring. You have to have variety. There's a time and place for everything under the sun."
"Obviously, I was raised with a musical heritage that is of that nature," adds Marley. "My father's music is of that nature. So we grew up listening to music like that. So that has become embedded with who we have become as people. Even if I wasn't doing music, whatever I would be doing with my life would have some kind of tie to social awareness or to try to help in some kind of way. Again, that's really about personal choice. It makes me happy to do those things. I like to speak about politics. I like to give a voice to people who don't have a voice. It pleases me to do that."
Marley subsequently expanded upon his collaboration with Nas, recognizing a kindred spirit, and the result was a 2010 album written by both men calledDistant Relative
"He speaks the truth," comments Marley. "Regardless of what your opinion of his music might be. He's really aware of his history in terms of being a person of African descent. He's a lot of things that is similar to what we represent as Rastas and I represent as Damian in his music within the hip-hop community. He's a very intelligent person and a very intelligent lyricist. Sometimes artists, when you meet them they're very intelligent but when you hear their music they tend to dumb it down. He's not like that. He expresses himself intelligently. And of course there's the energy that you can't put into words. There's a synergy between us when we create music."
Since then Marley has collaborated with EDM artists like Rusko and Skrillex, whose dubstep clearly has roots in reggae and during the recording sessions for Distant Relative, Marley ended up in a very unexpected and high profile collaborative project. SuperHeavy is a band that included Marley as well as Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Joss Stone and A.R. Rahman.
"I think it was Dave's idea, originally," recalls Marley. "And he ran it by Mick. They reached out to me right around the time I started to work on the album with Nas. We were actually working on both albums in the same studio complex at the same time. So I would be doing sessions in the day with Mick Jagger and then sessions with Nas in the night. They reached out to us with that idea and I thought it would be worth a try. It was a great learning experience being around Dave, Mick, Joss and Allah. Every one of them is great and legendary in their own rights. It was a great learning experience being around these different genres and approaches to making music all day."
Though this won't be a SuperHeavy show, there is no doubt that Marley will bring his personal warmth to the event with an arresting set of songs that have made his reputation as one of reggae's later-era masters.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.