Global Beat: Damian Marley
by Larson Sutton on September 05, 2017
In the summer of 2005, Damian Marley was everywhere. Bolstered by its jolting, title-track anthem, Welcome to Jamrock was a crossover smash, scoring Top-10 positions on four U.S. charts, and taking home Grammy awards for Best Reggae Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance. He toured the world, including a leg with U2, and earned high-profile cred as one of music’s frontline voices.
His approach was gritty, commanding and immediate— owing less to the classic ‘70s one-drop of his “Tuff Gong” father, Bob, and more to reggaeton, hip-hop and R&B. Yet, unlike many of his peers, Marley avoided the “slack” songs that plagued the genre— their lyrics rife with messages of misogyny and homophobia— instead targeting the societal ills that he experienced in the ghettos of his native Jamaica.
He had become a rarity: Both a superstar and a spokesperson of the street, Marley had the pedigree and presentation to become a legend like his father and worthy of his title, Jr. Gong. But, the likely follow-up to this massive success never came, or, at least, not when everyone expected it.
It wasn’t that Marley disappeared. He was working hard; in 2010, he collaborated with New York City rapper Nas for the hit Distant Relatives and was a member of SuperHeavy alongside Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Dave Stewart and A. R. Rahman. As a producer, Marley issued three volumes of Set Up Shop—compilations of singles by various reggae and hiphop artists. He also continued to perform, notably with his brother, Stephen, on 2015’s “Catch a Fire” summer tour, and annually on his curated Jamrock Reggae Cruise to Jamaica.
While these projects kept Marley active, they were not the anticipated successors to Welcome to Jamrock.
“It wasn’t really writer’s block,” he explains. “I was feeling too much anticipation— perhaps too much expectation of my own self. The longer you wait, the more you set yourself up for that, you know?”
The wait finally ended last summer. Marley delivered “Caution” then “Nail Pon Cross,” two singles from a soon-to-come album, Stony Hill. The latter’s controversial accompanying video, with the singer and others hanging in crucifixion positions from utility poles, signaled to the world: Jr. Gong is back.
“To tell you the truth, the idea sprung from a personal place; it translates if you’re trying to talk about police [or] criminals, a relatable topic that doesn’t have any boundaries,” says Marley. “It was written long before the change in government here in America.” Still, it’s hard not to view the cautionary dispatch as a commentary on the political rhetoric of border walls and travel bans.
“It wasn’t on purpose, but it just so happens that it can apply to that situation also,” Marley says. “It can apply to immigration, to stereotyping people because of where they come from, their skin color, their religion or their economic status.”
A third single, “Medication,” which features Stephen guesting on vocals, arrived this past April and confirmed Stony Hill’s imminent July release. The song, a love letter to the beauty and benefits of the marijuana plant, echoed Marley’s ongoing business interests with a California cannabis company, Ocean Grown Extracts. Plans for the partnership include converting a section of a former California prison into a permitted, state-compliant medical marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and testing facility.
“These things are the natural mystics of life,” Marley says. “This prison once housed people for the possession of marijuana, and now we’re growing herb that will benefit a lot of people. You couldn’t write a better story if you tried.”
Marley, too, is writing his own story. The album’s title is a nod to the St. Andrew’s Parish neighborhood outside Kingston where he grew up. It is also the namesake of a Denver marijuana dispensary that he opened last fall.
“I am a songwriter and, in my songs, I’m expressing my feelings. There is no distinction between the two. None of my songs are a put-on,” says Marley. “At the end of the day, it is my truth.”
Though Marley divides his time between Jamaica and Miami, he still refers to himself as a visitor in America, a status that’s reflected through his inclusion of both first-and third-world concerns in his lyrics. Early on, he says, he learned the value of metaphor in addressing larger, complex ideas with more digestible pieces.
“I remember when I first started, I was working with a friend, and he wrote a line about kids not being able to afford a milk treat,” says Marley. “I saw the importance of that—of being able to relate to an audience with something tangible.”
He kicked off a world tour in May, making stops in South Africa, Kenya and across Europe. From disco soul to power ballad, the diversity of styles Marley employs on the new album is purposefully akin to the changing landscape of global humanity.
“Nowadays, those lines are becoming more and more blurred,” says Marley. “It’s like one big melting pot—not just musically, but culturally.”